Chavismo Is Testing Its Party Machine (Again and Again)

A communal consultation, as well as the Esequibo referendum, helps PSUV and its allies to be more precise on its very limited spending and identify the priorities towards July 28

On April 21st, the Maduro government held a “people’s communal consultation” (consulta popular comunal). The concept behind this new attempt drew from deliberative democracy and social media influencer growth strategy. Basically, communal councils –Chavista-created neighborhood councils in low-income areas— were asked to choose five programs they wanted the government to finance in their communities. In other words, Maduro’s cash-strapped government was trying to understand its bases’ priorities while making a more efficient and focused use of public spending. 

The communal referendum helps to explain how Chavismo is seeking to measure and target its own bases before the July 28th presidential elections. While the government’s tricks have remained much the same, this 2024 electoral season has been unlike any other from previous years under Chavismo. Like in the past, the government has sought to criminalize and neutralize its biggest contenders and run “alternative” opposition candidates to divide their rivals. Yet, unlike previous elections, Chavismo nowadays cannot afford to throw one of their famous electoral “fiestas”. In fact, according to Caracas-based economics firm Ecoanalítica, public spending has only risen 4% this year.  

Reviving the party machine

If you are old enough, you will remember what a sight Chavista presidential campaigns were to behold. Back then –when the government had access to unlimited campaign funds due to booming oil prices that they mismanaged the hell out of– Chavismo could afford PSUV merch, Hugo Chávez live action figures, “ojos de Chávez” branded on everything and Hany Kauam catchy jingles. Supporting the government’s spending for the 2012-13 election cycle alone required what Jorge Giordani described in a 2014 open letter as a “great sacrifice and, financial and economic effort which led to the extreme use of public resources […] increasing PDSA’s and (the country’s) public debt”. 

In total, the 2012 campaign to reelect the “Supreme Commander” and stick us with Súper Bigote cost Venezuela over $16 billion USD. To put in comparison, the total spending for the 2020 General Election in the United States, by far the most expensive in El Imperio’s history, amounted to $14 billion USD.

Twelve years later, Chavismo faces the most perilous electoral position of its history. Despite governing Venezuela for over a decade, Maduro will face his first real presidential electoral test in 2024. So far the government’s “low-cost” strategies seem to have failed to phase the opposition out of the 2024 election, as it managed to do in 2018. While offensive strategies like promoting fake opposition candidates and restricting election rights could chip away at the opposition’s base, they fail to address the government’s electoral problems, particularly driving turnout as Chavismo has seen its vote share consistently dwindle since Chávez’s death. 

In this context, PSUV higher-ups need to find ways to reconnect with their voters and get them to the polls. In fact, the “consulta popular comunal” was a sort of test 2.0 to check on the status of its rusty machinery before the July 28th presidential elections. 

Party machine test run #1

Leading an authoritarian regime has its advantages in almost every step of the electoral process. Maduro has certainly benefited from barring candidates, using public resources for political purposes with no control and anointing himself the Chavista coalition’s candidate even when he is, optimistically, polling at 30%. However, not holding a primary comes with its own set of challenges when it comes to getting voters excited about the partys’ candidate and finetuning its machinery to drive turnout on election day. 

In December, Chavismo had its first approach at testing their party machinery under low stakes electoral conditions through the Esequibo Referendum. The regime fabricated an urgent crisis with Guyana, which they then exploited to call on a consultation for voters to “decide” the course of action. The hope was that the seemingly fast-approaching possibility of an escalation in Venezuela’s territorial dispute over the Esequibo would drive a rally around the flag to the polls in support of the regime’s campaign for the Esequibo. 

But the referendum was a failure. It remains unclear how many people participated in the regime’s “patriotic display of domestic strength”, but independent observers noted the lack of mobilization. According to the government, over 10 million people attended the deserted polling places set-up across the country (the opposition didn’t participate, so there were no official witnesses). A more likely explanation is that only 2.1 million participated in the referendum that consisted of five questions and the electoral council counted each vote for the individual question as individual votes, resulting in the 10 million votes number.

Regardless of the turnout numbers, far from inspiring confidence among the Chavista movement, the contrast between the empty polling locations for the Esequibo referendum and the long lines to vote in the opposition primary two months before soundend alarms within the governing elite. Far from solving Maduro ‘s turnout and mobilization problems, the Esequibo referendum underscored Chavismo challenges for 2024.

A weird populist giveaway (PSUV Party Machine test_version2_final_doxc)

As expected in a country with so many dire needs, the proposals for some of the communal council consultation included repaving streets, recovering hospitals, rebuilding sports complexes or restoring water and electric service to communities, all of which already are responsibilities of the Venezuelan government. In an act of political cynicism that should be lost on no one, Maduro basically asked his most fervent supporters to list their five most dire needs, choose one, and be happy about it. 

From an outsider’s perspective, the consultation was a repetition of the Esequibo debacle. After all, much like on December 3rd, turnout fell far from providing pictures to upstage the opposition’s primary and Maria Corina Machado’s massive rallies. However, It would be a mistake to try to frame the consultation in the context of a crowd competition with the opposition, because the government gained far more value this time around.

While a step back, mobilizing more than a million people –at least according to Chavismo’s communicational apparatus– to express confidence in Maduro is no small feat. The government gained a clearer picture of the effectiveness of local PSUV political operators, which is extremely valuable within an organization as shady and rigid as the Venezuelan ruling party. Furthermore, they got to test the strength of their 1×10 strategy –in which each member of the Chavista structure needs to mobilize ten voters– and identify and replicate local strategies that have been successful in motivating voters. 

The communal consultation provided a context for PSUV higher-ups to interact with forgotten communities, reconnect with its bases and understand their needs and priorities. The consultation was basically a massive market study of Chavista voters, which provided the government with a roadmap to target their voters’ needs. Instead of flooding Venezuela with a public money avalanche like in previous years, Maduro gets to maximize every dollar, which is great for a government forced into pinching pennies.

Maduro’s evangelistic campaign is another example of the government’s charm offensive to energize the Chavista base. Surprisingly enough, evangelicals make up 25% of Chavista voters, according to pollster Delphos. Bizarrely but unsurprisingly, the socialist government of the Venezuelan secular state has spent an ungodly amount of public resources courting the evangelical vote. In March 2024 the government revived and expanded the equal to three-minimum-wages “Good Pastor” bonus –which was allegedly benefiting 17,000 pastors and will now benefit 20,000 more new pastors– it stopped paying in September 2023. This is similar to “Misión Mi Iglesia Bien Equipada”, a program developed to provide cash and equipment to churches across the country – in some cases even donating public buildings. In recent months, Maduro has even spoken about “Christian socialism”, invited a Kenyan “prophet” to Venezuela and held a “repentance” ritual with pastors. Nevertheless, the oldest Evangelical organizations in Venezuela haven’t jumped on the Madurowagon, some going as far as condemning the government’s efforts to use their faith.  

Will this work?

PSUV’s party machine showed signs building up for the muck election. Sunday’s dry-run was a golden opportunity for the government to test not only their novel 1x10x7 strategy to mobilize voters but to also roll-out all the nasty tricks and tactics the opposition can expect come July 28th. “Puntos azules” outside of polling places, sign-in sheets for government assistance beneficiaries, even required selfies for public employees, and –perhaps most unnecessary– a 2-hour deadline extension. The result was long lines at numerous polling places and the first honest smiles by Jorge Rodriguez and Diosdado Cabello. A month before the election, the government finally got their show of strength.

In the last couple of month’s Maduro’s share of support has grown from 18 to 27%, near his ceiling, according to Delphos. It’s very hard to pinpoint what exactly has driven this rise in popularity for the Venezuelan leader, but it seems to coincide with the most recent increase in government spending and with a strong campaign push from the Chavista hierarchy to revisit their forgotten allies. However, a little government spending and a lot of campaigning can get you so far when you have presided over such a disastrous period of Venezuelan history. Especially given the fact that your main opponent continues to draw massive crowds even in the most remote corners of the country.

Most pollsters have set Maduro’s support ceiling at about 30% of the vote, which is not enough to catch up to Edmundo Gonzalez’s 55% average even if you allot 10% of the vote to the “loyal opposition”. However, it might be enough to provide a credible cover for the government’s electoral engineering and backroom dealings. Going into July, you can be sure that we have not seen the end of the government’s efforts to derail the election – even if the opposition, having learned from the past, is better prepared to deal with the government’s offensive. But one thing is clear: nervous as the government may be, 2024 will not be a year of fiesta electoral.

Pedro Garmendia

Pedro is a Penn State alumnus focusing in politics and philosophy. After a four year stint at the OAS, he now works in Washington D.C. analyzing political risk and geopolitics for private sector clients.